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Oct. 6, 2017

Watch a Navy football game and it’s not difficult to figure out who takes the snap, who carries the ball, and who scores the touchdown.

Danny O’Rourke, Navy’s Special Teams Coordinator and Slot Backs coach, doesn’t see much of that. Who he sees is the Navy back without the ball. Did he get downfield? Was his opponent on the ground?

O’Rourke doesn’t see who is scoring; he sees who’s blocking.

“Our culture is different … we’re trying to break the opponent’s will,” says O’Rourke, now in his 16th season with Navy. “But it’s not rocket science – you don’t want your individual opponent to make the tackle.”

The proficiency with which Navy’s A-backs block for each other has allowed Navy to overcome some uncharacteristic mistakes in the last two weeks to move to 4-0 for the second time in the last three years, a 3-0 in the American Athletic Conference West Division.

But it’s the last two victories, over Cincinnati and Tulsa, which occurred in stark contrast to each other that stand out. In the Cincinnati game, the Mids largely played with the lead. At Tulsa, Navy was in real trouble, trailing by two touchdowns as halftime approached. However, the emergent theme in both games was Navy’s ability to win the physical battle at the point of attack, eventually wearing down their foe physically and mentally, to capture victory.

This is the battle inside of the war, a metric O’Rourke tracks. You won’t read about it in newspaper articles, and it won’t be sited in game notes, but it’s a list no Midshipman wants to see their name on, either.

“Our key is creating a one-on-one situation for our ball carrier by eliminating the individual opponent ahead of the play,” O’Rourke says. 

Against Tulsa, two big blocks spurred Navy’s first score and swung the momentum in the Mids’ favor. On second and 9 from the Tulsa 26, Navy’s Jahmaal Daniel drove linebacker Diamon Cannon seven yards downfield to spring John Brown III for a first down.  A few plays later, freshman Keoni-Kordell Makekau demolished Tulsa’s Reggie Robinson and Malcolm Perry – left in a one-on-one situation against a potential tackler – made a nifty cut at the sideline to get the ball to the 1. Abey scored on the next play.

 “When we win those (blocking) battles, we know the back carrying the ball is talented enough to make a play in the open field and make his man miss,” O’Rourke said. “We don’t succeed just because of the player running the ball. It’s a unit-first approach to attacking the defense.”

After Abey’s touchdown, the defense forced a punt, affording Navy one more possession. They were 77 yards from the end zone, but had just 78 seconds to get there. On the first play, fullback Chris High broke several tackles on a 25-yard jaunt. Now at their own 48, Offensive Coordinator Ivin Jasper called for a pass. Tight end Brandon Colon feigned himself as a blocker at the snap, moving downfield a few steps, before releasing left to right and parallel to the line of scrimmage.

Seeing Colon running without a defender in sight, Abey hit him in stride at the Tulsa 39, and the senior from Brownsville, Texas stormed all the way to the 15. How had Colon gone unnoticed? Because Tulsa was so concerned with getting enough “hats” (coach-speak for tacklers) to the ball, they forgot about Colon when he exited what they believed to be the point of attack. It was Navy’s ability to block playing a big role in a big defensive mistake by Tulsa.

Abey scored two plays later to tie the game. By winning the blocking battle, the Midshipmen took over the mental edge and rolled to a 31-21 victory in systematic fashion.

“Getting your man to the ground is such a good feeling, because when you do your job, you know there’s a chance you’re going to be watching a teammate score,” Perry said after the win against Cincinnati. “Jumping back to your feet when you know you got your cut block in and we’ve scored because of it is literally thrilling.”

Thrilling for Navy and demoralizing for their opponent. After watching Navy rack up 569 yards rushing in the 42-32 win over his Bearcats, Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell used the word “disheartening” to describe his team’s struggle to get off blocks and missing tackles at the point of attack. He admitted his team was “a step behind” most of the day.

This selfless approach is the primary divide separating Navy from schools labeled as Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences alike. College football news crackles year-round about players transferring from school to school because they’re not getting the ball enough. During the post-game press conference after running for 100 yards and a touchdown, there was Perry talking about getting downfield and making blocks.

“I think Malcolm is going to be a special player, but he’s focused on the right things,” O’Rourke said. “I was in the locker room with the guys so I didn’t hear it, but those kinds of comments make me smile.”

And it’s not just the A-backs who reveal in the art of throwing a great block. Left guard Jake Hawk, a junior who grew up in Severn, Md. (Meade HS), threw a beautiful cut block in the Cincinnati game that sprung Perry’s 23-yard touchdown to put Navy up, 7-0. The play completed a 13-play, 74-yard drive that chewed almost six minutes off the clock.

“That’s a 300-pound guy running downfield and getting a much quicker safety on the ground,” O’Rourke said. “When we catch a team lined up and get those kind of angles, it’s an awesome thing to watch us execute like that.”

A scout from a National Football League team sitting in the press box during the Cincinnati game spoke of the discipline Navy’s triple-option attack requires, on both sides of the ball.

“It’s not millennial-friendly football,” he said, while requesting anonymity on behalf of the team he represents. “It requires accountability to execute it and accountability to defend it, too,” said the scout. “You’re going to hit or be hit on every play, so you have to be prepared to do your job on every play. The team that makes those plays almost always wins.”

Like a baseball team trying to rally in the final turn at bat, Navy’s blocking strategy passes the responsibility down the line. Each player is expected to block, and each player will get their turn to carrying the ball, too. By getting downfield and making blocks, Navy extends drives and chews down the clock, helping win the time of possession battle, too. Against Cincinnati, the Mids’ held the ball over 36 minutes; at Tulsa, they owned possession for almost 40 minutes.

“Because we’re hard to stop, we can typically get a yard or two on every play, so we can go for it on fourth down and short to get the first down,” O’Rourke says. “Winning the blocking battle is what eventually breaks the defense, physically and mentally. That’s why we’ve been so successful.”
~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Navy Football: Return to Glory, which releases Oct. 9 from the History Press and available at all major retailers, in addition to iBooks  and Amazon.



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